It really is tough when movies try to probe into the human psyche. Each and every title that attempts to dissect what turns a person into a truly damaged individual naturally aspires to Charlie Kaufman level. Sadly though, only a few are actually able to contribute anything new to the conversation. With his SXSW entry, The Master Cleanse, writer/director Bobby Miller has crafted a film which is not only a telling portrait of depression, but also a delightful piece of surrealist entertainment.
In The Master Cleanse, Paul Burger (Johnny Galecki) finds himself unemployed and still grieving over the demise of his last relationship. Hopelessly depressed, Paul is chosen to attend a retreat ran by a man named Ken Roberts (Oliver Platt) and his assistant Lilly (Angelica Huston). Upon arrival, Paul and his fellow retreatants Maggie (Anna Friel), Eric (Kyle Gallner), and Laurie (Diana Bang) are put through a rigorous cleanse, the effects of which will have life-changing effects on all of them.
I’m always drawn to films which deal with the surreal. Not the horrific or the terrifying, mind you, but the truly surreal; the kinds of intriguing stories which exist in worlds which operate in a sort of heightened reality. These stories have the ability to mirror the real world as we know it to a point, but also transform it in a way that makes the audience reassess what they felt they knew to be true. The Master Cleanse is a glorious example of the kind of surrealist world that is easy to get lost in. The tranquil woodsy setting with a never ending forest, mountains, cabins, trees, and trails contains an undeniable serenity. And yet the kind of deep human exploration and the highly fantastic events that continue to occur provide an excellently stark contrast to the setting. The world Miller has gloriously created is one which mixes the familiar with the otherworldly, and the fact that he does so in such a beautifully subtle way certainly elevates the effects of the story on the audience.
The Master Cleanse is most certainly a dark comedy and contains many potent laughs throughout. It is also a fantasy tale with elements which call to mind past cherished classics such as Gremlins and E.T. Ultimately though, The Master Cleanse is a film about damaged humans and the process of healing. Its central story is about facing those issues which keep men and women from continuing on as individuals. Moreover, its about knowing that the relationship with such demons can easily turn co-dependent unless the individual is able to summon up the courage to destroy that which keeps them emotionally captive and has the ability to eventually destroy them altogether. Miller manages this in such thoughtful characters with whom I, and doubtless lots of other audience members, could find parts of ourselves in.
So rarely given the chance to take center stage outside of his successful TV show, Galecki makes for a highly compelling lead. His reactions to the highly unusual situations developing around him call on his reliable comic abilities, while he’s able to tap into some true emotional space to bring forth his character’s pain. He’s well-matched with Friel, who has clocked in many hours in numerous supporting roles. In Maggie, the always enchanting actress is given plenty of room to explore a guarded, fragile character, and does so wonderfully. Gallner is a scene stealer, and watching his character’s emotional journey from annoying to introspective is a great showcase for him. Finally, though I would have liked to have seen more of them, Platt and Huston bring their acclaimed acting styles to the table for a pair of characters who exist in a different spiritual and mental reality from the rest of the world.
In fact, that’s really my only complaint – no, make that wish – with The Master Cleanse. I wanted to spend more time with all of these intriguing and layered characters and absorb the world they found themselves in which prompted them to face their fears and demons. Maybe this is because the world Miller depicted was so mesmerizing in it’s own quiet way, or maybe I just wanted some more cinematic therapy for myself. In the end it hardly matters because in spite of runtime, The Master Cleanse’s message of healing and forgiveness was deeply felt.